How to Terminate an Employee

I’m not the first to write about this topic, for sure.  But I saw an article on Yahoo! titled “How to Break Up With a Woman” and I thought, “Yup.  That’s about right.”  (BTW, why is it no one ever worries about how to break up with a guy?  It’s always the other way around.  That’s a post for another time, I guess.)

Without reading through the whole thing, I took the headlines and interpreted them for those of you looking for some help…

Don’t just pull a disappearing act on her
We’ve all seen managers that can’t have the tough conversations, so they just ignore the problem and hope it goes away.  It won’t.  More than that, people deserve feedback.  How can you expect them to get better if they don’t know what you expect?  And if you have a problem child that you suspect is being difficult on purpose, its likely because they are trying to get your attention. Give it to them.  You’ll either fix the issue, or they’ll figure out that you won’t.  Either way, you’re doing what’s right to address the issue.

Consider the timing before breaking the bad news to her
This one gets tougher to execute.  Catch someone stealing from the office the week of Festivus?  It’s probably not a great idea to let them keep their key.  But if you are just looking to upgrade your talent, don’t drop someone on their birthday.  The goodwill in the office it will cost you just isn’t worth it.

Don’t rely on technology to do the deed
If I ever find out someone on my team terminates an employee over Twitter, Facebook, email, voicemail, office phone, home phone, cell phone, iPhone, pager, sephamore or smoke signals, their desk gets cleaned out next.  OK, OK, I might make an exception if we’re dealing with an abandonment situation and we have made every effort to contact them.  Then a letter is OK.  I guess.  But still, leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, so try to avoid it.  OK?

Give her adequate face time
Terminations take more then five minutes.  Don’t rush through it.

Choose your breakup location wisely
Privacy.  Get some.  But don’t be shy about having a third party in the room, especially if you are terminating a member of the opposite sex.  Sometimes you have to protect yourself.

Don’t be cruel in the name of honesty but Stay strong in your assertion that it’s time to end things
A termination discussion should always remain fact based, and personal attacks avoided.  “You haven’t displayed an ability to work effectively with others” is better than “People hate you.”  Try not to crush the terminee, even if you think they deserve it.  It never leads to anything good.  On the other hand, being too soft may lead to them trying to bargain for their job or appealing to you to give them another chance.  If you are at the table, it is over, and you need to make that clear.

Don’t freak out if she gets emotional afterward
And expect the terminee to be emotional, to get loud, to get angry.  Let them vent.  Don’t take it personally.  Being termed is tough.  Be understanding.  (But threats against you or another specific person are a conversation ender.  Be clear about that.)

Don’t use that “It’s not you, it’s me” line on her
This one doesn’t quite work, becomes sometimes it IS you.  RIFs and layoffs happen.  And in those cases, someone gets cut.  It may not pretty, but it is true.  Say so.  But if it really is them, be clear about that as well.

End things properly with her before you start seeing someone else
Nuh-uh.  Not if you can help it.  The shorter that gap is, the better off your company will be.  Don’t shy away from looking for talent, but dont – DON’T – ever advertise a position openly when someone is still in it, unless they have told you they are leaving.  If they find out you are recruiting for their job, be prepared to scramble to react.  And that’s not a situation anyone wants to be in.

It’s OK to agree to keep in touch (on special occasions only)
Maybe.  Depends on the term reason.  But there’s plenty of value in a robust alumni association for your business.  Just don’t screw it up.

Reassure her
Remember, the H stands for Human.  We are service people, we are connectors, and we generally like other people.  Treat the terminee as human as you can.  Yes, it will be tougher for you.  Deal with it.


  1. This is a GREAT post! Well done. I don’t think terminations should ever be a surprise to an employee as long as, like you say, you are always communicating with them and not holding things back.

    • Thanks, Jean. The tough conversations are…well…tough. It’s the hardest part of being a manager, no question.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Great list, but I have one small disagreement. I think termination meetings should be short. 5 minutes is ideal and 10 minutes would be the absolute maximum. Why? Because when you’ve gotten to the termination stage, there’s nothing more to discuss.

    When it’s a termination for performance or similar problem, then there should have been lots of previous discussions, but at termination? No. Done. Today is your last day. Here are papers to sign (if relevant). Here things to take home and read and you can call me if you have questions.

    • In general, I agree. My point is that we should take the time that is required, and not cut the meeting short unnecessarily. But yes, ideally not much time is needed. But in the case of something like a RIF, that may not be the case.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. I agree with Jean.


  1. […] How to Terminate an Employee: Dwane Lay, Lean HR Blog, uses inspiration from an article titled “How to Break Up With a Woman” for a post on how to terminate an employee. […]

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